Chrono Trigger has one of the best storylines in the history of video games.

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It’s masterfully creative time travel epic that revolves around a group of characters from across several eras who team up to defeat the parasitic alien Lavos and prevent the oncoming apocalypse.

However, Chrono Trigger doesn’t begin with this storyline.

It begins with a much smaller plot involving a kidnapped queen and a case of mistaken identity.

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The question of this week’s blog post is simply:

Why?

If the plot of your story involves an epic challenging of a planet destroying alien, why not open with that?  Why make your players wait through smaller storyline that’s not as exciting?

Let’s take a closer look at this opening storyline.

The game opens with a girl, Marle, falling victim to a malfunction of a scientific exhibition at the local fair and getting thrown into a time portal.  The main character, Crono, heroically plunges in after her to rescue her from whatever danger awaits on the other side.  However, when Crono arrives in this era 400 years before his, he finds Marle not only safe and sound, but treated as royalty in the nation’s castle!  As it turns out, she looked so much like this time period’s queen who was recently kidnapped that she was mistaken for her and in effect took her place in the kingdom.

Crono is relieved to find her unharmed, but before he can take her back home through the time portal, she vanishes right in front of his eyes.

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Only then do we learn that Marle was in fact the descendent of the kidnapped queen.  Once she was mistaken for her, the search was called off and the real queen was never rescued from her captors.  This caused a ripple effect which rendered all future descendents of hers, as Doc Brown would say, erased from existence.

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At that point Crono makes a decision.  He himself will go rescue the real queen, undo this change of history, and bring back his friend Marle.

This storyline comprises the first segment of Crono Trigger.  While it’s a cool and exciting tale, only after this do we get to the really epic stuff: aliens, post apocalyptic futures, and decisions to change history and save the world.

So once again, why not start with that story?

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Brandon Sanderson, author of the Mistborn series and the Stormlight Archive among others, cautions writers of science fiction and fantasy to be aware of learning curves.

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In realistic fiction, the learning curve–aka what you need to understand to follow the story–is minor to the point of nonexistent.  But with science fiction and fantasy, you often need to know all about how magic works, how specific technology works, how society has structured itself around these worldbuilding elements.  Sanderson warns writers not to overwhelm their readers with so much unfamiliar information about the fantastical or futuristic world that it intimidates them and discourages them from reading further.

This is an important point, but there’s a side of this discussion that’s often overlooked.

Just as there’s an informational learning curve, there’s an emotional learning curve.

It’s hard to care about information when you’re still processing it.  Drawing implications and understanding consequences is difficult and frustrating when the whole framework is new.  A reader needs time to adjust to surroundings before there’s enough familiarity to even begin to build an emotional connection.

Example:

Dragons exist.

Dragons are going extinct.

Upon hearing this, you process it on an intellectual level, not an emotional one.

But if I allow you to spend time with dragons, see how cool they are, see how cute baby dragons are, play some games of fetch, fly around in the clouds a bit–and THEN I show you how they are slowly dying off, then I’ve not only conveyed the information to you, but conveyed the emotional basis for you to care about that information.

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This is why Chrono Trigger didn’t open with its grand epic.  It instead began with a much more localized story that operated by the exact same principles.  This way the player could get used to how this particular epic would use time travel.

From Crono’s decision to rescue the queen himself, an important precedent is established:
If there’s a crisis that will impact the future, you must change the past, no matter how hard it may be.

When we see the footage of the apocalypse in the desolate future, we know exactly what must be done.  The understanding of what has happened and what now must happen comes quickly and easily because we’re already familiar with the story’s modus operandi.  Emotionally, we’ve experienced the pain of a crisis in losing our companion Marle, the empowerment of deciding to change history, and the hardships involved in actually accomplishing this.  This precedent serves to magnify the emotional experience of the same decision regarding Lavos and the apocalypse.

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Without learning about the world on a micro-scale first, we would not be ready for the full emotional experience of a macro-level storyline.

It is worth noting that this lesson can’t always be applied since there’s often not enough time to open with a micro story.  If kept short, this kind of small story can fit in the opening of a movie of novel, but I think it functions best in video games, TV series, and comic book series, where there’s room for more broader story structures.

However, it doesn’t have to be an entire storyline.  It can just be a scene or two.

For example, Star Wars gives us many examples of what it means to be a jedi before we come to a scene that demands emotional involvement regarding those elements.  When Luke first sees a lightsaber, it’s not in battle reflecting lasers or anything, it’s just a moment of Luke experiencing a lightsaber and marveling at it.

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Before using the Force to fire the proton torpedoes into the Death Star, we see Luke using the same techniques in the controlled setting of the ship cabin, where nothing is demanded of us other than to see the Force in action and take note of what it can allow a jedi to do.

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There are many ways of dealing with the issue of learning curves, but taking into account not only the intellectual curve but the emotional curve as well is crucial.  If you don’t lay proper groundwork for complex worldbuilding, the inherent quality of the story that follows won’t matter.

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That’s all for this week’s post!

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